Voicing the Reclamation in Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion 

• October 2019

Even before Antonio de Nebrija, author of the first Spanish grammar book, declared to Queen Isabela in 1492, on the occasion of his presentation of the dictionary to her, “Your Majesty, language has always been the perfect instrument of empire,” colonizers understood the power of the voice and importantly the significance to the larger colonizing project of silencing the voice of the colonized.1 Nebrija’s use of “has . . . been” is notable: it is an indication that this imposition of language and concomitant suppression of the voice, and efforts to eliminate the language of the colonized, had been in practice even before slavery took deep root in the 1600s.

It follows, then, that as postcolonial scholars have turned to addressing the multiple mechanisms of the colonizer, voice and language have been central (a position also taken up by writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie, among others). Kamau Brathwaite’s theorization of “nation language,” well recognized as one of the groundbreaking explications of a kind of grassroots, grounded, bottom-up resistance to the deliberate and consistent efforts to mum the voice of the colonized, is still relevant.2 Most of the decades-long critical engagements with language and voice address areas such as voice and language through the lens of linguistics, the recovery/reclaiming of self, the cultural significance of Creole languages, and so forth. Less frequently addressed is the relationship between reclaiming the voice and reclaiming the material possession—land—that was at the heart of the colonization project. As an example of the vast possibilities offered by scholarly studies on orality and their many critical tributaries, Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion intervenes in discourses on language, voice, and the larger self-reclamation project, with a focus on the intersections between voice-language and the core colonial mission—land acquisition. The collection asks us to consider how reclaiming voice/language/one’s ways of speaking serves as a means of reclaiming or changing the terms of conversations about land, largely through shifting the focus from ownership (the colonizers’ approach) to stewardship. Therefore, my use of stewardship instead of ownership in this essay signals the persona’s resistance to the colonizers’ relationship to land as capital and the way they configure themselves as “owners” of land.

Written as a conversation between a European cartographer and a rastaman and interspersed with interjections from an omniscient narrator, Miller’s Cartographer advances the conversation on language, voice, and Caribbean orality by making a direct link between place and voice.3 Reminiscent of the verbal face-off between Caliban and Prospero, and harnessing a diverse range of Caribbean oral modes, Miller’s poems capture the postcolonial challenge to the colonial-era land grab in a back-and-forth between a mapmaker who feigns innocence and objectivity and a rastaman who is grounded in folk wisdom, fully aware of colonial dispossessions, and equally well versed in the vernacular strategies available for rethinking the relationship to land.

Miller’s recourse to multiple forms of orature such as Rasta “reasoning,” folklore, place names that makes sense only to local people, and other ways of mapping space to mark territory positions the colonizer as an outsider, a trespasser, and in so doing challenges the grounds—colonizers’ perceived entitlement to ownership and indeed the very idea that land can be owned—on which Europeans have historically laid claim to land. These poems foreground an epistemological system and worldview that undermine what have been accepted as “proper,” empirical ways of knowing, measuring, and naming, and expose these “standard” approaches as mechanisms of dispossession. The collection therefore makes visible other narratives, other “truths,” and in so doing invites listeners to the conversations that take place in the poems to extend the critique of colonial land grab to include how we conceive of relationships with land, space, and boundaries.

It is especially significant that Rasta talk, another version of Caribbean orality, is one of the major linguistic modes that Miller employs in this collection. Velma Pollard refers to “Dread Talk” or “Rasta Talk” as a “lexical expansion within the creole system.” Thus, dread talk is a form of nation language and logically part of Caribbean vernacular-grounded anticolonial response. In her observation that the rastaman found himself “in a society where lightness of skin tone, economic competence and certain social privileges have traditionally gone together,” Pollard positions dread talk squarely within the larger discursive and ideological, anticolonial space of self-reclamation.4 

Miller’s structuring of the battle over land as a verbal face-off also draws on another Caribbean tradition: the verbal dueling that accompanied stick-fighting battles in Trinidad in the nineteenth century. Funso Aiyejina observes in his essay “Unmasking the Chantwell Narrator in Earl Lovelace’s Fiction” that one result of the rural-urban drift of the mid-1800s was the formation of “calinda/stickfighting street gangs . . . to defend turfs”: “Each such band had a lead singer/chantwell whose duty it was to ‘harangue the stickfighters into action, to sustain the courage of his champion, and to pour scorn on the rival group or champion’. . . . the performance of the chantwell would go on to form the foundation of the calypso art.”5 One example of the wider practice of verbal dueling in Caribbean folk vernacular cultures, the oral component of the stick-fighting traditions has had multiple reiterations. And as has been the case for Caribbean writers for decades, a twenty-first-century writer such as Miller draws on this long history of verbal agility, this time through the more modern iteration of dread talk.    

Two of the opening poems, “Quashie’s Verse” and “Unsettled,” set the stakes for the conversation between the rastaman and the cartographer: they establish the connections between possession-dispossession, language-voice, and land. Beginning with “But what now / is the length / of Quashie’s / verse?,” the speaker situates this conversation in the space of the loss of Quashie’s (the archetypical enslaved person’s) oral agency.6 In this way, the speaker also conveys the centrality of voice and its relationship to agency in the colonial project that is at the heart of the dispossession of colonized peoples. Here there is no mention of land or the colonizer’s materially driven impulses; rather, the inclusion and repetition of “measure,” with its resonances of spatial demarcation, plant the seeds of the speaker’s claim to space in readers’ minds.

“So what now shall Quashie do—his old / measures outlawed, and him instructed / now in universal forms, perfected by / universal men” (12). At the heart of the problem for Quashie are some key epistemological and expressive shifts. His ways no longer hold sway:

           who can no longer
        measure by kend or by
  chamma or by ermijja; he who
 knew his poems by how they fit
in earthenware, perfect as water (12)

The words measure and poem that recur throughout this work signal the intersection of land and rhetorical agility as a way of centering the colonized as a rightful steward of this space. Quashie has some decisions to make about how to navigate the new dispensation in which he has now been forced to live:

     So what now shall Quashie do—his old  
measures outlawed, and him instructed  
  now in universal forms, perfected by 
     universal men who look nothing  
                and sound nothing  
                    like Quashie? (12)

Having lost his ways of speaking and his place in this new structure, and finding himself absorbed by the now standard or “universal” ways of being, Quashie is being required—because of the ways the “universal men” have perfected these new “forms”—to adjust, even reinvent himself. Thus the voice of the rastaman that the audience hears over the course of the collection is conceivably that of the reinvented Quashie whose verbal dexterity not only constitutes a response to the land grab in which “universal men” were engaged but also demonstrates Quashie’s creation of a new set of discursive survival strategies. 

Following “Quashie’s Verse” in the collection is “Unsettled,” which places land, ownership, and control of space at the center and is ideationally positioned as a complement to the earlier lament about the loss of speech, voice, and words. Harking back to a precolonial time, the speaker details the state of the land before it was put under the “universal men” referred to in “Quashie’s Verse”; as the speaker says, the island was “unwritten, unsettled, unmapped” (14). And the speaker’s inclusion of such images as the “brawl of vines,” and the “leh-guh orchids and labrishing / hibiscuses” alongside futuristic phrases such as “bullet trees so hard / they will one day splinter cutlasses” and “swing low the carcasses / of slaves” uses the change in landscape as a way of signaling the destructive disruption that colonization engendered (13). This attention to space then unmasks the cartographer as a key player in the horrors of what the change of the landscape produced. In the first part of the poem “The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion”—“i. in which the cartographer explains himself”—the cartographer feigns innocence and objectivity when he explains his job:

                        My job is 
to untangle the tangled, 
to unworry the concerned, 
to guide you out from cul-de-sacs 
into which you may have wrongly turned. (16)

Yet even in this attempt to “explain himself” as an objective scientist of sorts, the cartographer’s choice of words reinforces his entanglement with the ideological side of colonization. His stated goal and role to guide one out of wrong turns explicitly positions him as one who knows the “right” way. 

But in the rastaman’s first response to the cartographer—“ii. in which the rastaman disagrees”—he contradicts the scientist:

                now that man’s job is never straight-
forward. . . . Him work is to make thin and crushable
all that is big and as real as ourselves . . .
. . . is to make invisible and wutliss
plenty things that poor people cyaa do without . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                                   [and] make visible
all them things that shoulda never exist in the first place
like the conquest of pirates, like borders (17)

Thus begins the battle of words between these two men from divergent philosophical positions, each of whom, like the chantwell who used words to mark turf, draws on his ways with words to claim or reclaim the upper hand in this battle over land.

It is notable that the rastaman’s laying out of this new way of being is a reasoning that appears to speak to a reframing of how the world that the mapmaker has created might be understood, a different way of viewing the work of the Western cartographer who is also a microcosm of the colonizer in a more general sense. Lines such as “the mapmaker’s work is to make visible / all them things that shoulda never exist in the first place / like the conquest of pirates, like borders” revise aspects of the colonial narrative and thus invite the audience to rethink some ideas and institutions that are part of the putatively universal, “normal” ways of being. For example, the linking of generally accepted “borders,” such as those between countries, with piracy, which carries a negative connotation, raises questions about one taken-for-granted way that the world is structured; it reshapes the system that has resulted from the construction of colonially inspired mapmaking.     

The three sections of “in which the rastaman disagrees” (ii–iv; 17–19) and the four sections of “in which the rastaman offers an invitation” (v–viii; 20–23) inscribe many of the key areas of ideological, epistemological, and linguistic modes of redefinition and stewardship. Apparent in the use of key Rasta self-referents “I&I” and “I-man,” and stock dread talk lexical items such as “Jah” and “Babylon,” this poem is grounded in dread talk and in that way foregrounds a version of Creole, anticolonial speech. But beyond the linguistic signals, this part of the larger poem also embeds several of the key ideological positions of Rastafari. The rastaman outlines his other way—beyond the Western vision of ownership, demarcation, borders—of thinking about land, creation, and measurement: “I man / also look to maps drawn by Jah’s large hands / him who did pull comets cross the sky / to lead we out from wicked Pharaoh’s land” (23). With this statement, he at once locates the power to map and perhaps exercise ownership in the hands of the divine creator and implicitly away from the secular scientific cartographer, a mere human being. That identification of the rastaman with higher, more spiritual ways of mapping space is reinforced in the reference to being led out of Pharaoh’s land, a biblical association that not only makes clear a key element of Rastafari cosmology but also positions the rastaman, and by extension the formerly enslaved and colonized people (victims of land grab and exploitation), as chosen people and part of a higher calling/rescue. This wresting of mapmaking from the “universal men,” the scientists, does more than undermine the “objective” Enlightenment-derived understanding of Western colonizers; in locating the I&I within this chosen spiritual realm, by naming Jah as the ultimate cartographer, and in using language and ways of speaking that the scientist cartographer cannot overstand, the rastaman invalidates the system on which the colonizer’s claim to possession is built.

Like several other poems, “ix. in which the cartographer travels lengths and breadths” instantiates the sense of understanding (overstanding) that the cartographer loses as the actual stewards of the land name and conceive of the space. The somewhat obvious point emphasized here is how the names given by the people—the formerly enslaved, indentured, and colonized—articulate the grounded experiences of these stewards of the land. Also, the opening, “Give him time and he will learn” (25), shifts the balance of power: the cartographer, who in the earlier poem proclaimed himself to be the one whose job it is “to untangle the tangled,” now has to be given time to learn. He must now be educated because what he thought he knew was all his own constructions that have no meaning to those who have lived in that space and who have named and “mapped” it along the contours of their tangled and entangled history.

In closing, I return to the significance of the spoken word. In Christian cosmology, which the colonizers claim to understand and promulgate, it is through the authority to name that Adam was granted stewardship of the land in the garden of Eden. Thus to Western colonizers who see the white man’s possession of land as a God-given birthright, naming consolidates this belief in a right to land ownership. With the voice, speech culture, linguistic dexterity, ontological, and epistemological systems grounded in Creole and specifically Rasta worldview, Miller’s collection evinces more than a “talking back” to the colonizer. The collection’s omniscient narrator and the rastaman pull from a homegrown knowledge system and a set of rhetorical tools to redraw the lines of Caribbean landscape and reconfigure the space through (re)naming. By positioning “Jah” as the ultimate cartographer, the persona and rastaman reject ownership and adopt stewardship as one way that the (re)newed peoples relate to the space. And language, used so extensively and effectively as an instrument of empire, is also marshaled as a tool of decolonization and self-reclamation.


Carol Bailey is an associate professor in the English Department at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she teaches courses in world, postcolonial, Caribbean, and cross-cultural literatures and in women’s literatures. She is the author of A Poetics of Performance: The Oral-Scribal Aesthetic in Anglophone Caribbean Fiction (UWI Press, 2014).

1. Antonio de Nebrija, Gramática de la lingua castellana (1492; repr., Madrid: Junta del Centenario, 1946), 11.

2. See Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon Books, 1984).

3. I follow Miller in rendering rastaman as a closed, lowercased word.

4. Velma Pollard, Dread Talk: The Language of Rastafari (Kingston: Canoe, 2000), 4.

5. Funso Aiyejina, “Unmasking the Chantwell Narrator in Earl Lovelace’s Fiction,” Anthurium 3, no. 2 (2005): 1.

6. Kei Miller, “Quashie’s Verse,” in The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2014), 12; hereafter cited in the text.


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